The relationship between contract hire companies and their customers varies enormously. In fact someone should write a book about this topic one day. At the one extreme you have fleet managers who say “we’ve been doing business with them for years, they give us the service we need and we never give the relationship a minute’s thought”. At the other extreme you have the fleet managers who say ” they charge us a fortune, hefty unexpected invoices arrive for all sorts of things we hadn’t budgeted for and we are wary of them”.
Most client/supplier relationships lay somewhere between these two extremes of course, but if you are a fleet manager and you recognise some elements of your own situation in the second situation described above – “we are wary of them” – this article is for you.
The core proposition of every contract hire company is that they will deliver a vehicle, let you run it for some years, renew the road tax annually, pay for tyres and service, maintenance and repair (“SMR”) costs and collect the vehicle at the end of the contract.
Delivering this ever-so-simple product (one supplier used to advertise “We look after everything – all you have to do is put in fuel and drive it”) is anything but simple for the contract hire company. You may see very little activity from them – it may seem that they just they deliver you cars, send in a monthly invoice and pay the bills. However, rather like a swan, whilst it all looks serene up top they are padding away furiously just below the surface.
They have to manage a cat’s cradle of relationships with manufacturers, dealers, roadside assistance companies, banks, data providers, technology companies, remarketing companies, daily hire companies, accident management companies, fuel card companies, the DVLA and others, to ensure that you get the service you need.
Where tension exists between leasing companies and their clients, as often as not it’s because the leasing company hasn’t explained adequately why it does some of the things it does.
It can be annoying when they ask you for financial information about your company. “Why do they need that? They can always repossess the cars if we don’t pay.” Well yes, they can, but they don’t want to and their pricing certainly doesn’t allow for that sort of cost.
It can be frustrating when one of your employees leaves, you ask how much it would cost to terminate their car lease and you’re told it will be thousands of pounds.
And – perhaps top of all fleet managers’ lists of gripes – it can be perplexing when a bill arrives for vehicle damage you didn’t know about and the driver insists the damage wasn’t really that bad at all.
Let’s look at the detail behind those last two items – early termination charges and end-of-life damage charges – because they probably generate more heat between leasing companies and their clients than anything else.
First, early termination.
There is one key difference between leasing companies and daily hire companies. When you order a hire car for a few days or weeks you probably aren’t that bothered what make or model of car turns up. So long as the car is in the right hire group – small, mid-size, estate, 4×4 etc – you’ll probably be happy.
However when you order the company car you’ll be driving for the next three or four years you will be very fussy indeed about which car arrives, and so is every other company car driver. So the leasing company will have gone out and ordered that car specifically for you and by and large they will be unable to redeploy it once you hand it back. They’ll have to sell it, which causes a problem because the price they receive will depend on the age and mileage of the car when you hand it back, and the state of the used car market at that date.
You might decide that you want to know at the outset how much it would cost you to early terminate the car. Alternatively, you might prefer that they just sell the car and charge you the amount necessary to clear their books. Almost all leasing companies will allow you this choice, and will build it into your agreement. Incidentally, that’s something you really must do if you want to avoid shocks later: build the early termination method into your lease agreement.
If you want complete certainty as to the amount you will have to pay to terminate your lease early, your leasing company will probably offer you one of four methods: percentage of future rentals, a fixed number of rentals, the rule of 78 or the annuity method.
Percentage of future rentals [or the fixed number of future] are self-explanatory. “If you terminate in the first 12 months we will charge you X% of all future rentals [or 12 rentals], if you terminate in the second 12 months we will charge you Y% of all future rentals [or 6 rentals], etc.
We have covered the rule of 78 and annuity methods in these articles in the past so won’t go into detail here now. Suffice to say that these are ways to determine the balance outstanding on a financing agreement at any point in the life of the contract. If you know how a repayment mortgage works you’ll be familiar with this approach: each month’s payment is allocated mainly to pay off interest in the early part of the contract and mainly pay off capital later on. (If you would like us to explain this in more detail in next month’s article, please let us know).
The alternative approach is the actual cost method, whereby the lessor will charge you the balance outstanding in their books less the net price they receive on selling the car.
Any of these approaches might be more or less expensive than the other, for a particular car on a particular day. You just need to choose which method you prefer and this should help avoid any shocks. If you don’t like uncertainty, go for the actual cost method.
The other tricky area in relationships between customers and suppliers is end-of-life damage charges. Most UK contract hire companies belong to the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association and they have to comply with the BVRLA’s excellent Fair Wear and Tear Guide which defines the line between fair wear and unfair damage. If you haven’t seen the Fair Wear and Tear Guide, ask your leasing company for copies and make sure your drivers are familiar with the contents.
The best way to ensure your leasing company doesn’t charge for damage is to make sure the car is in an acceptable condition at the end of the lease. This means ensuring that your drivers keep their cars in reasonable condition, report damage as soon as it occurs and get it repaired. Make sure the work is done professionally, otherwise the leasing company may still charge for the damage.
Most leasing companies don’t send damaged end-of-contract cars for repair. They sell them at auction to dealers who can get cars repaired for roughly the same price as the leasing company would pay. The leasing company will charge you for the reduction in the value of the car but in truth this figure is very hard to calculate. The actual price a car fetches at auction on a particular day can be affected by all sorts of things, not just its condition, so they will do their best to calculate the diminution in value of the car. This calculation is part art and part science.
If you think a charge is particularly high, challenge it. Every leasing company will be prefer to explain something rather than leaving you dissatisfied.
Most leasing agreements say that the supplier won’t charge you for unfair wear or tear if the value is less than a fixed amount, often £100 or £150.
And if you really don’t want to eliminate the issue of damage charges, have every vehicle professionally inspected shortly before the end of the lease so that any necessary remedial work can be done before the lease ends.
Professor Colin Tourick
Grant Thornton Professor, University of Buckingham Business School